Tea thrown overboard. Freeing the prisoners. Knocking over a statue. Every revolution has a moment when the people say that they will no longer tolerate tyranny. In the case of Estonia, the Baltic nation that suffered under two of history’s most brutal and oppressive regimes, the Nazis and the Soviets, it was a song.
Laulupidu, the Estonian song festival held every five years that features 30,000 singers on stage In November 2003, UNESCO declared Estonias’s Song and Dance Celebration tradition a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In 1988, 300,000 Estonians in Tallinn sang national songs and hymns that were strictly forbidden during the years of the Soviet occupation, as Estonian rock musicians played. It signaled and hastened the end of Soviet domination.
I was delighted to see this film because my family has been to Estonia and we heard a little bit about the Singing Revolution when we were there. I began by asking Maureen and James Tusty how they came to make The Singing Revolution documentary.
MT: We never get tired of talking about it. We spent four years in production and the past year in distribution and promotion and we are still excited about it.
Jim’s father was born in Estonia, in Tallinn. We had a chance to teach in the first media program in the Baltics. We were teaching filmmaking and people started telling us stories. We asked ourselves, “How could we not have heard of this?” If we were ever going to take on a personal project this would be it. They came up with the name “the singing revolution.” It is central to the Estonian nature. It is such a small country and they are quite modest. People would talk about these events and we would say, “You did what?” “Oh, well, I told my mother and the babysitter to come,” they would say it so casually, and here was this event that was so transforming.
JT: The Estonians in particular dislike bragging and as a result they did not boast about what happened.
How did you shape the story as you filmed and edited?
JT: We shot about 40 days over about 3 months, February to July 2004. We pre-interviewed about 200 people, then interviewed about 40 on camera and of those maybe half of them ended up in the film. We wanted not only the leaders but also those who simply participated. One of the interesting things is that there was no one character to focus on, no central hero in the film. It is easier in one way because the entire nation is the hero. But it is a challenge in another way. How do you make that a personal story? The film gave the nation a personality.
The first singing protest was in 1988 after a rock concert. There was no one person saying, “Here’s what we do.” Everyone just came together. It was one of the pivotal events and the leaders emerge after the will of the people is evident.
How did the Estonians respond to the film?
JT: The film premiered in Estonia on December 1, 2006. We were concerned that they would feel, “Who are you to tell our story?” but we got an unprecedented standing ovation. I think it was good to have someone who cared about Estonia but who also had an arm’s length view and some objectivity. What they did not even really have a name at the time but now everyone thinks of it as “the singing revolution.”
There had been other versions of the story focused on all three of the major events, but this is the first one to show how these three movements interwove with one another. It was released theatrically in Estonia and became the most successful documentary ever shown there. The history of the song festival is a possible project for us in the future. It always had a political aspect – it was founded with a view against tsarist Russia.
MT: Part of the challenge was the way we represented the leaders. Many are still involved in Estonia today. We spent quite a bit of time to make sure we had the balance and accuracy of the events. We finally had all three of these different factions agreeing, “Yes, this is how it happened.” Each knew only what they had been talking about.
JT: We did that independently so they could each make sure we had their part right. It would be like getting Al Gore and George Bush to agree on the Florida recount!
And what about in the US?
MT: It was released just a year ago in NY and LA. We wanted to go for a theatrical run, but the majority of distributors were discouraging. We just felt this story would so resonate with people that we decided to go for it. It was held over for five weeks in NY. We were able to play in over 140 cities across the US and Canada and it is still playing even though the DVD is out.
JT: Part of what makes our film unique is that we had a regular theatrical release; it was not just an event film. We got to experience the film in many different cities. It brought in several different kinds of audiences: Baltic-Americans, singers, people interested in non-violence, and people in the freedom movement. It began with those four constituency groups in particular, and we would narrowcast our marketing, but then word would get around town and by the third week the general community would find us.
MT: Estonian choral music is quite known in the community of people who sing in choruses, so they really supported this film.
JT: And they are already organized, so they would come in groups.
What else have you done to help people understand the extraordinary events of the singing revolution?
MT: We have developed a three-DVD educational set for high schools and colleges with teacher materials, maps, and PowerPoint, so that schools can use this story to teach students not just about Estonia and this particular struggle but about non-violence and freedom fighting. To accomplish what they did without violence is really remarkable, especially with what they had lived through, an amazing human story.
JT: Ironically, the Estonians are quite an independent people, as they said, “The miracle is not that we beat the soviets, it is that we got hundreds of thousands of Estonians to hold hands together.” We have done dozens of films, but this one is highly personal and unique. We feel there are millions to reach with this story because of the grace and elegance of the protest and how effective they were. We think we have it hard sometimes, but look at the Estonians and see how they prevailed.